Lines of angst

Lines of angst

Lines of angst

“He died with a great deal of peace,” said Yusuf of his father Tyeb Mehta, who succumbed to heart attack five years ago at the Asian Heart Institute Hospital, Mumbai.

“He had just one cataract removed two weeks ago and was going to have the second one removed later this month. He was excited as a child about his paintings and had ordered fresh art supplies from Singapore. He had also started some fresh sketches.”

By the time he breathed his last on July 2, 2009 at the age of 84, Mehta’s paintings had for long steered the country’s art scene and invigorated the art market. Even as auction records were broken by enthusiastic collectors, the artist himself remained unmoved and blissfully detached.

Mehta’s reclusive nature was indeed legendary. He lived in a sparse unfussy middle-class apartment in Mumbai. Not one to have the luxury of a spacious studio in his entire life, he still made paintings of varying sizes, some of them large.


Unlike many of his peers and fellow travellers, he also took care to guard his privacy and aloofness. “I have always been a loner and am still quite a bit of a recluse. I live in isolation, I paint in isolation… My happiest moments are spent with myself and my art… I do not paint for money, or for what people think of me or of my work. I am not part of this hyped up ‘art world’…I paint of my times, but I am not of this time.”

When his paintings started selling for crores of rupees at the auctions around the turn of the century and brought the otherwise low profile artist into limelight, Mehta silently lamented, “People only wake up when money is attached to art. I have been painting for 60 years.”

Cinema to art

Born in the Kapadvanj district of Gujarat in 1925, Mehta was keen to become part of the film industry, but circumstances led him to study art and make painting his profession. He did make an award-winning short film Koodal (16 minutes/ 35mm/ 1970) about which Satyajit Ray wrote, “The film pleases as much by its response to forms, textures and moods (the scene in the empty slaughterhouse is very well done indeed).”

Mehta’s name is, however, essentially linked with his absorbing paintings which attracted both critical and popular attention. His themes were dark, often reflecting upon the horrors, disasters, and troubled legacies of his time.

“There were elements of violence in my childhood,” he once revealed. “One incident left a deep impression on me. At the time of Partition, I was living on Mohammad Ali Road, which was virtually a Muslim ghetto. I remember watching a young man being slaughtered in the street below my window. The crowd beat him to death, smashed his head with stones. I was sick with fever for days afterwards and the image still haunts me today.”

Art critic Ranjit Hoskote feels that for Mehta the need to articulate the crises and exultations of his society was paramount. “During the six decades of his artistic practice, this need has taken precedence over personal comfort, worldly success, commercial gain, and critical acclaim… Whether in his falling figures, his trussed bulls, his resplendent goddesses and demons locked in mortal conflict, we see, again and again, the wrestling of the consciousness with its materials, the overcoming of circumstance by the imagination.”

Kali & Mahishasura

Interestingly, Mehta’s paintings which made headlines at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Saffronart and other auctions, were actually bought by collectors for almost a pittance from the artist. Of all the people who made millions in the secondary market, it was only the art patron and theatre personality Ebrahim Alkazi who remembered and gave Mehta 25 per cent of what he sold the famous painting “Kali” (1997/acrylic on canvas/ 30x24 inches) for. That painting, auctioned at Saffronart on-line auction in 2005, had the distinction of breaching the Rs 1 crore mark.

Alkazi, who was associated with many modern artists including M F Husain, F N Souza, Vasudeo Gaitonde and others had recognised Mehta’s talent early and wrote way back in the 1950s about his values and uprightness.

“Tyeb has great integrity and has constantly refused to compromise with the current bazaar taste, as well as with the taste of ‘progressive’ art circles. Above all, he has refused to compromise with himself.”

Another interesting fact is that when Mehta painted his canvas “Celebration” (one of only two triptychs he ever painted), there was not enough space in his apartment to properly view the large work. He had to take the nearly eight-feet-high and 17-feet-wide canvas to a neighbour’s house in order to have a better look! That was in 1995. In September 2002, the media group which owned the very same painting auctioned it at Christie’s New York for $317,500 (about Rs 1.5 crore).

Elements of violence marked many of Mehta’s paintings; viewers were amazed by the way he sensitively combined aspects of myth, mythology and modernity in his work. The demonic “Mahishasura” and the struggling bull were two of his enduring symbols. “For me, the trussed bull is a compulsive image,” he confessed in an interview.

“It served as a metaphor for the violent struggles one experiences in life...The bull is a powerful animal and when its legs are tied and it’s thrown down, it is an assault on life itself.”

These images were also the ones which created headlines for Mehta. In 2005, “Mahishasura” sold for $1.584 million (nearly Rs 7 crore) at Christie’s. In March 2011, two years after his death, his “Bulls” (painted over a period of three years i.e. 2005-2007) was auctioned by his family at Christie’s for $2,826,500 (Rs 12.7 crore).

In December 2013, when Christie’s organised its maiden auction in India, another of “Mahishasura” paintings fetched the second highest price of Rs 19.7 crore. Just a few months ago, yet another of his paintings showing a falling, flailing bull sold for $2.28 million at Sotheby’s New York in March 2014.

Mehta’s work was thoughtful, painstaking and meticulous; he was not prolific like his friends Husain or Souza. “In the five decades that daddy painted, his output must have been only 100-150 paintings,” recalled Mehta’s son, Yusuf. “Painting to him was a carefully rehearsed raag. He didn’t complete an artwork until he almost perfected it. There were times when he came to the finishing stage and then discarded the work and did it all over again.”

While his powerful images created a dramatic impact on the viewer, Mehta himself was disinterested in explaining his work or building myths around it. For him, they were just images, meant to give an experience which the viewer had never experienced before. A painting is not a fixed idea, he said; all he wanted was the viewer “to see it with an open eye, without prejudice, pre-conceived ideas or notions about what paintings are”.